Axios Pro Exclusive Content

China human rights bomb dropped

Feb 1, 2024
an illustration of a car key that has red buttons printed with stars that mimick the chinese flag

Illustration: Tiffany Herring/Axios

Capitol Hill is digesting a new report alleging that major automakers are relying on forced labor to get aluminum for their cars, as electric vehicles juice demand for the industrial metal.

Why it matters: Bipartisan support is rapidly growing to clean up "clean energy" while criticizing China.

  • It hasn't led to legislative action. But the issue's become a tinderbox on the Hill awaiting a lit match.

Driving the news: A report from Human Rights Watch alleged that auto companies — including General Motors, Tesla and Volkswagen — are relying on aluminum linked to China's Xinjiang province, an area that's been a source of forced-labor allegations.

  • The report calls on Congress to tighten existing statutes and require companies to certify that the aluminum being used isn't made with forced labor.
  • Jim Wormington, a senior Human Rights Watch researcher, told Axios he wants lawmakers to conduct more forceful oversight.
  • "The Senate Finance Committee wrote pretty pointed letters" last year, Wormington said, "[but] we didn't see any public response from that."

Human Rights Watch sought answers from automakers, with varying success.

  • Volkswagen told the group it was working hard to address forced labor. It said it isn't legally responsible for human rights impacts from operations in which the company lacks "decisive influence."
  • Tesla said it had tracked its supply chain to the mining level and hadn't found forced labor "in several cases."
  • GM simply told activists it's committed to "address[ing] … any potential risks related to forced labor in our supply chain."
  • The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents major auto manufacturers, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Between the lines: The report is making its way around the Hill at a time when action on autos and China could soon occur.

  • "There's a real sensitivity among members of Congress regarding these issues of forced labor," Sen. Bill Cassidy told Axios, acknowledging he wasn't yet familiar with the specifics.
  • Finance Chair Ron Wyden told Axios his committee's inquiry into auto companies and Chinese supply lines has found "as is reflected in the HRW report, that not all companies are responding to this issue with the seriousness and attention it requires."
  • "I will continue to press automakers and their suppliers to comply with the law and be clear with consumers about how their products are made," Wyden said in a statement.

The intrigue: Sen. Gary Peters told Axios earlier this week that talks also are ongoing over how to improve 2021's Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which banned forced labor. He cited "a lot of interest."

  • In another show of support for action on China, House Speaker Mike Johnson Wednesday called on the Biden administration to "fully enforce the letter and the spirit" of the forced labor law.

The other side: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said he supports efforts to deal with the "sincere" drawbacks in the renewables and EV industries.

  • But he added, "To the extent they're simply excuses to serve the fossil fuel industry and block nonpolluting renewable technologies, then we serve their purpose."

What we're watching: When carmakers have to testify about their Chinese suppliers.

Go deeper